Miriam Perlstein was one of eight siblings who survived Auschwitz. It was so unusual for a family of eight – seven sisters and one brother – to emerge intact from the notorious death camp that when they landed on Ellis Island after the War, they became a media sensation. Repeatedly photographed and interviewed, they were besieged by reporters who wanted to know: How was this possible? What made you so unique? Practically everyone else’s family was decimated. Most of the survivors who limped into “The New World” had lost parents, children, spouses, siblings. But for an entire family of eight to have survived and found each other! How could it happen?
“Miracles,” the siblings answered patiently to everyone who asked.
And it was true. Miracles had abounded in all of their lives during their incarceration at Auschwitz, but Miriam’s, they agreed, was vastly different from those experienced by Esther, Faigy, Sima, Yitu, Monci, Binyamin, and Leishu. While their miracles fell under the realm of what could be called the rational, Miriam’s belonged to a different category altogether.
Miriam had been directed to join the column of prisoner smarching slowly towards the crematorium that would turn them into ash.
Several weeks after her arrival at Auschwitz – after having survived several “selections” and having kept death at bay – sixteen-year-old Miriam was suddenly pulled out of the row of prisoners lining up for “roll call” one morning, and transported to a separate section of the camp where a different procession was in place. Perhaps something about Miriam’s demeanor that day had displeased the Nazi soldier whose gaze had settled upon her, or perhaps there was simply a quota to fill. For whatever random reason that no one could ever explain (and was there an explanation, after all, for the Nazis’ haphazard and merciless decrees?) Miriam had been directed to join the column of prisoners marching slowly towards the crematorium that would turn them into ash.
At first, Miriam thought that she might have been sent on a new work detail. But the women in front of her and the women behind disabused her of that notion. “Isn’t there anything we can do?” she begged them. “Look around you,” they whispered. “Nazi soldiers with guns everywhere. How can we possibly escape?”
Miriam looked at where the women pointed. Unlike them, however, she didn’t see the menacing guards with their drawn guns, nor the German shepherds who helped herd the pitiful tatters to their inevitable fate. What she saw instead…several yards from where she stood…was the thoroughly unexpected but utterly beloved visage of her mother, Chinka Chaya Baba, who had been transported with her daughters to Auschwitz and then transferred to a different barracks somewhere else. All these weeks, the daughters hadn’t had any contact with their mother, and couldn’t find her. What was she doing here of all places, Miriam wondered, right near the crematorium, and why were the soldiers oblivious to her presence? It was an incongruous emotion to be sure, but even as she trudged towards certain death, Miriam’s heart exploded with joy to see her mother again. But why was her head not shaved like everybody else?
Miriam obeyed her mother’s command. She broke from the line and ran for her life.
As Miriam studied her mother in shock and bewilderment, her mother raised a scrawny arm, motioning that she should join her. Miriam glanced meaningfully at the guards nearby. I can’t, she signaled with her eyes. Her mother nodded her head encouragingly and beckoned her again. How could her mother think that she could escape? Miriam waved her hand at the soldiers who flanked her. It’s impossible, her movements said. But suddenly, there was a commotion in the back of the procession, and several guards dropped behind to investigate. NOW! her mother gesticulated wildly. It made no sense, it was doomed to fail, but Miriam obeyed her mother’s command. She broke from the line and ran for her life, back to her barracks, back to where her sisters tensely waited and plied her with kisses and extra crusts of day-old bread.
“What happened to you?” they demanded. “Where did they take you? Where did you go?”
She told them everything: how her mother had astonishingly appeared at the precise place where she and the others had been rounded up, how the Nazis had been oddly unaware of her mother’s presence, how she had insistently pantomimed that Miriam should run. “And I was so overjoyed to see Mamma again!” she babbled almost incoherently, still dazed by her experience. “She looked exactly as she always looked, they didn’t even shave her head!”
The other sisters looked at one another wordlessly. They too were shaken by Miriam’s recital: Her near-brush with death made them shudder in fear, but it was their mother’s intercession that made them tremble in awe.
“Miriam,” one of them said gently, tenderly caressing her cheek to soften the blow. “We didn’t want to tell you before, because you’re the most sensitive among us. But we received reliable reports from several different prisoners working at the crematorium. Mamma was killed the first day she arrived, weeks ago.”
“But I saw her clearly,” Miriam wept. “If she hadn’t signaled me to escape, I never would have tried.”